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Department of Education – Treatment of principals

In light of the very public Christina Holgate story, here’s another lesser known one that happens more often than you might think.

School principals in the NSW public education system sit in a very precarious seat. They are at the pinch point between students, staff, parents, the wider community and the upper levels of the Department of Education. Their job is to implement the policies and directives of the Department on the front line whilst guarding the welfare – academic and otherwise – of the staff and students. It is an enormous task, one in which the consequences frequently ripple through the community. Principals in the department are generally extremely hardworking, dedicated careerist educators. This a story of how they are treated when something goes wrong.

Like all government departments, the NSW Department of Education (DoE) has a section that monitors the conduct of its employees; Performance and Ethical Standards (PES), formerly known as Employee Performance and Conduct (EPAC). The name change occurred in the wake of the Tedeschi Review and departure of its long-time director. Should a staff teacher be brought to the attention of PES, the prevailing advice to principals was to manage the situation with the teacher remaining in their position. Should a principal be the subject of complaint, the remedy is very different – swift removal, often with career-killing effect.

Rebecca(1) is the principal of a reasonable sized school within Sydney with approximately 70 staff and 700 students. She has spent more than three decades employed by the DoE, from a new classroom teacher out of university, through Head Teacher, Deputy Principal and now, Principal. She has advanced her career through merit and dedication, for many years working with migrant students. She has diligently carried out DoE policies and has had an unblemished professional record. As a deputy principal she was positively mentioned in the NSW Parliament by the local member in reference to her efforts. As principal her school was officially commended as a high-performing school; an improvement under her stewardship. Rebecca believes in the benefit of education, and in particular, public education, being a product of public education herself. As her many cards from students over the years attested, she made a difference. Her working day as a principal would begin by leaving home before 6:00am and not returning until around 7:30pm. After an evening meal, school emails would be attended to until bedtime. Repeat every day. Add in school events, functions and P & C meetings. Emails, planning and documents would take up substantial amounts of weekend and school holiday time. Most principals are putting in this level of effort as standard practice.

One of Rebecca’s staff members had been removed by EPAC under a cloud for his own alleged misdeeds. Rebecca was subsequently called to a meeting with her director one afternoon four weeks later and was presented with a letter from EPAC asserting that there were unspecified allegations of ‘serious misconduct’ against herself. She was summarily marched from the premises, told to speak to no-one regarding the matter(2), and ordered to report as a classroom teacher in a school not 15 minutes up the road from her school community. The brutality of this sudden action shattered her. The shame, humiliation, isolation, and destruction of decades of reputation caused Rebecca to become deeply depressed and anxious. In the first few weeks after being stood aside, she was suicidal. She spent nights wandering the house, agitated and unable to sleep. Her doctor put her on long-term anti-depressant medication and prescribed pills for anxiety attacks. For two weeks she literally didn’t know what to do from moment to moment, so sharply uprooted and displaced was she. Rebecca was on sick leave for three months, and although it was agreed that the injury had been sustained in her place of work, her worker’s compensation claim was denied(3). Nobody outside Rebecca’s immediate family know what’s happened to her. It took months before her adult children were informed. Beyond that, no-one; her social world has collapsed.

This was just the beginning of a long damaging and unjust process. It took fifteen months to produce a single specific allegation. In contravention of the Department’s own published guidelines, Rebecca received no termly updates on the progress of her matter. There are several principals stood aside at the moment. The custom for EPAC/PES in the treatment of principals is to remove first and then construct a case. Sometimes the initiating complaint doesn’t even make it to the final allegations, but any hint of dirt unearthed during investigation – anything and everything – is piled on. The investigation is focussed on making the case for PES, an important bias to note. Its goal is not to find justice or even the truth of the matter. To me PES comes across like a kangaroo court. In Rebecca’s case, the investigation has concluded after eighteen months and PES wishes to demote her several levels. At her age, this decision is career-ending with a significant financial penalty. Rebecca has received a 600 page summation of the investigation and has 14 days to make a written response. She was not interviewed by anyone for the investigation(4). She was offered a choice of a written submission or an interview. She could have a support person at the interview but not legal advice. Even if an investigation finds nothing conclusive, PES is apparently entitled to prefer its own version of events(5).

There is not a single finding in the report of any instance of misconduct against Rebecca. There is supposition, ill-informed opinion, and at least one irrelevant witness. There are no witnesses for the defence. There are dubious statements that remain unchallenged. There is a conclusion by someone who hasn’t spoken to Rebecca, that ‘a threshold’ had been reached that deserves the ruination of her career. The case is complex. There is a third party involved, completely unknown to Rebecca, that has made no contribution to the investigation(6). It is clear that she is being made the scapegoat for the actions of others, including perhaps, the department itself. The department’s report admits that the practice at the heart of this matter pre-dates Rebecca’s time at the school. The previous principal has not been asked to contribute to the investigation. He is retired and therefore beyond the clutches of this apparent ‘hatchet job.’ The report appears in parts factually incorrect, incomplete, biased and lacking credibility. But there is no real opportunity for Rebecca to rebut.

Initially in this process Rebecca was under instruction from PES (then EPAC) not to speak about the matter, isolated from colleagues, or any professional support. She was not to discuss this with anyone. This aspect alone was hugely psychologically damaging. She did find a very good support person in her respective principals’ professional association, but his job was not to mount her defence, but metaphorically hold her hand through the process, walk her to the gallows if you will. A long-time observer of these processes noted that if you’ve become involved in a departmental investigation, the result has increasingly become guaranteed to be detrimental to you. The department can simply insist that a principal should have done more. No matter what the circumstance, the principal should have done more. Without ever defining what ‘more ’actually is, just as the magical ‘threshold’ remains unquantified.

After three decades of paying Teachers’ Federation fees, Rebecca turned to the union for assistance. What she found was a sad inert organization that has been in the same dance with the same partner for way too long. It appears that the DoE and the Federation know each other’s moves all too well, that there is an attitude of a tired shrug and throwing up the hands from the union. Rebecca’s first support officer was found to have a conflict of interest in her case, her second apparatchik refused point blank to ask for legal advice in considering her allegation. The Federation solicitor later asked Rebecca why she hadn’t sought legal advice at that point. There was only silence when it was explained that her union had blocked her. The Federation will drop any support from a member if they think that the member has sought legal advice elsewhere. (If you can’t afford your own legal advice then the Federation is the only organisation that can file in the Industrial Relations Commission should you wish to challenge the department’s decision). The union can have you stitched up as much as the department can.

When legal help was sought through the Federation the hope that a defence on behalf of Rebecca might be mounted was soon dashed. The focus was on mitigating the already decided penalty. This was a craven surrender in the face of a gross injustice. It’s agreed that the conduct of PES amounts to a denial of fairness of procedure, the length of investigation and the lack communication breaches PES’s own guidelines. Rebecca has no practical way to mount her own defence. The ban on communicating with anyone in regard to the matter denies her any chance to mount her own investigation or use her own witnesses. She is denied access to her work files. It is a flagrant denial of natural justice. All her legal help available amounts to ‘let me help you put that noose around your neck’.

The departmental thinking at the heart of this callousness is that the reputation of the department must be protected. In reality the result amounts to a failure of responsibility flowing up the ranks, ultimately to protect the minister. And it’s interesting to note that the brunt of responsibility is borne at the principals on the line between the frontline of education and the bureaucracy, an administration – one would suggest – peopled by predatory political animals unconcerned at who they damage in pursuit of their own ambition. The Department at these levels has forgotten the very purpose of its existence: to provide a quality education to the children of the state. PES is routinely taking some the most dedicated and accomplished educators and destroying their health, wellbeing and careers. The protection of reputation translates to a lack of transparency and silencing those with uncomfortable questions. The reputation of teachers however, is disposable.

Finally, in the interests of disclosure, I am not an employee of the Department nor subject to any departmental inquiries. Rebecca is my wife, and the family also pay a price for the gross injustice and damage perpetrated upon her. My wife was made suicidal. I’m just the guy who would find her gone from the bed in the middle of the night. I would look for her wondering what I might find. As we’re left to pick up the pieces of that accomplished and talented professional woman, I am left with a useless, seething rage at the unnecessary injustice and waste of it all.

There are other principals who are being subjected to the same crude destruction of their lives. A recent finding in the NSW Personal Injury Commission(7) found that the Department denied a principal procedural fairness. It wont be the last time.

Author’s name withheld for privacy reasons.

* * * * *

1 Name changed for anonymity.

2 Other than EPAC personnel.

3 This matter is currently still being disputed.

4 Rebecca made one written submission in response to the letter of formal allegation.

5 There is a story that mid-courtroom proceedings, EPAC once arbitrarily changed the allegation, thus side-stepping any accountability and leaving the aggrieved principal stranded.

6 It is understood that other legal activity is still current for the third party over this matter.

7 Loughran vs Secretary of Department of Education.

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  1. Steve

    What a depressing read with everything else I have been reading the last few days, When did treating people so badly become the so-called norm, the workers out there on the front line are just getting more and more screwed. Stay strong Rebecca.

  2. Phil Pryor

    Teachers have found over time that they face potential enemies, who become active and actual, being the heads of department, the dep and Head, the inspectors, the parents and teachers people, the department, the D G, the Minister, the whole government, if any of these are challenged, ignored, threatened, awakened. Betrayal, abandonment, leperisation, can occur to any teacher, with a bad luck run.., and as this story unravels, one can see that an isolated teacher can be worse off than a 1984 Orwellian character set up for torture and death. I write in support of the victim as accused but betrayed, suppressed but not getting jujstice.

  3. wam

    what a horrible story.
    perhaps an appointment with the public service commissioner or ombudsman or even the opposition?
    There are legal firms with no win no pay policy, although that is scary.
    How disappointing is the teacher’s union???
    Sorry for being suspicious but is it women treated this way or men as well?

  4. GL

    What happens when a committee for ethics and integrity in politics is raised? They, particularly the LNP and offshoots (not mentioning any names Pauline) run and hide in their bunkers until it blows over. It’s the age old “Do as we say, not as we do.”

  5. TuffGuy

    I wonder if anyone has tried getting their own legal help and taking on the DoE??? This story is so disgusting I would also wonder why no lawyer anywhere would not have volunteered to stand up for this treatment of principals???

  6. Stephengb

    This is a direct result of senior public servants being appointed by ministers.

    As an ex public servant, I saw it myself that department heads were appointed by the ministers in power and those ministers dictated to those department heads but not on writing.

    Ministers do not like their departments having bad publicity or flawed in any way because ministers have a vested interest in keeping their trotters in the trough.

  7. New England Cocky

    A sadly too frequent situation for dedicated teachers that to my personal knowledge has been occurring for at least 30 years.
    These SES slackers in the DoE have often escaped the chalk-face because they could not stand the stress, and, discovering that they were unemployable at similar pay & conditions in the community climbed the greasy pole within the DoE.
    There appears to be ”a gentleman’s agreement’ between the DoE and NSWTF that allows many kinds of ”judicial” skulduggery, like the above silence demand/rule and non-lawyers making ”insufficient evidence” judgments on disciplinary matters … after a three (3) day in-service training course!! (uhm … there is no ”insufficient evidence” judgment oi n Australia).
    Consider the case above and these two other matters: . 1) A Deputy accused of cuddling up to senior girls is investigated by a departmental minion who does not interview the teacher complainant; . 2) The principal who spends three to five (3-5) days a week over eight (8) years attending InService courses throughout the state, consuming about 50% of the school InService budget for the whole staff, then who is instructed to re-write his diaries to protect himself and the DoE.

  8. Andrew

    So sad to hear this. Same thing occurred to me and every day is a struggle. There is no support and the family impact is terrible After giving almost 30 years of service I feel used You are a number and no one cares. Love the kids and the impact we make but the politics is out of control. Best wishes.

  9. Karma

    PES has a lot of questions to answer in how they conduct their “investigations” or decisions made on what they will or will not investigate. Watch this space as more eyes are focused on PES, previously known as EPAC. Eventually the truth will come out what crimes have been covered up & how far the destruction has rippled into people lives & their community. Just need 1 lawyer courageous enough to do a class action of all the people effected. Once there is a call out to DoE NSW employees it would be astounding how many would come forwarded.

  10. Ahmed A

    To all those being impacted by this system, forget taking action through the Industrial Relations Commission. You will get no joy here. The system is geared to ensuring that this government department is protected from potential action due to the prohibitive cost of doing so, and the overwhelming ability of the decision maker to weigh evidence however they choose, without having to substantiate why. The Briginshaw standard (balance of probabilities) enshrined in the Guidelines, can be and is manipulated to serve the interests of PES, and is therefore (intentionally?) useless when mounting a defence. PES decides which evidence to accept and which to discount. This has been going on for so long, PES knows how the system works and therefore continues to act with impunity.

    I would take immediate action through worker’s compensation. Make sure you document an injury (psychological) with OHS from the moment you receive advise that you are being investigated. Then be prepared to add to the injuries being incurred throughout the process, resulting from the actions which undoubtedly PES will take. Some legal firms, who specialise in this area, are subsidised to help cover the cost of such action, so you likely won’t be out of pocket. Refer to the Donna Loughran case. Remember, any legal costs which you do incur to save your employment, are probably also tax deductible. And if you find yourself having to sign a deed prohibiting you from taken action against PES in the future, this cannot prevent you from making a claim under Worker’s Compensation.

    The only way anything will change is if the continuation of the current system starts to damage the government, both financially and through loss of reputation.

  11. Peter Adams

    Given the comments written here, why is this continuing to happen? It appears that the system is empowering and enabling high paid public servants to act to the great detriment of Department of Education employees at all levels, without oversight or accountability. What is the Minister (Sarah Mitchell) doing? What is the Shadow Minister (Pru Car) doing to highlight the ongoing shortcomings? This is a major issue and yet continues unabated.

    What is occurring is not a recent occurrence. The Tedeschi Report highlighted several issues but did not go anywhere near far enough to reign in the practices of PES. And how many recommendations have actually been implemented or are being adhered to? The previous Executive Director (Jane Thorpe) appears to have been removed suddenly in 2020, without public explanation. This all requires independent investigation.

    And the Minister is now asking for the public to provide solutions to the continuing decline in the teaching industry. Extraordinary. I would suggest looking at the practices of PES as a good start. How many experienced and dedicated teachers and principals have been removed, or are fearful of the powers of PES? And at what cost, both financial and the depletion of a valuable resource? The education of future generations is in peril, unless of course, you can afford to pay for well funded, private schooling.

  12. Stoo

    An all too familiar story I’m afraid. My circumstances are not too much different and I was treated appallingly as a result. I was a principal fro 22 years (and I believe, was very good at my job) and was made a scapegoat after the Dept of Education bungled an investigation where no wrongdoing was evident. This happened 13 years ago and since then I have battled PTSD, depression and anxiety … before being forced to resign (despite having done nothing wrong). I am now taking legal action and my legal case continues this Thursday. I am totally disgusted by a organisation that I previously trusted, believed in and advocated for.

  13. Kerrina Swords

    A group called the Australian Teachers Support Group was founded in Jan 2017 because of the type of abusive treatment discussed in this article. Most of the members are teachers who are often targeted by the principal and sometimes an executive mob. We do have members who were/are principals and executives. I had my 30+ year career terminated after a principal, nicknamed The Cleaner was appointed to my school. His reputation preceded him. I was his primary target for reasons I do not understand. I stopped going to my wonderful school after reading the bully abusers report on my conduct and performance which was so untrue it was devastating. This report was written after I made an official complaint about his and the Senior Admin Officers ongoing bullying/harassing treatment of me. Going to my workplace hadn’t been safe for some time but I had kept going for the sake of my 300+ students. By the time I saw the report and realised the lengths the principal would go to to be rid of me I was very unwell. My so called DoEd Work Health and Safety officer believed the principal when he said he’d discussed all matters in his report with me. He’d discussed none. The thing that appalls me most is if the NSW Dept of Ed had acted after a woman teacher who experienced very similar bullying abuse by the same principal was hospitalised and compensated via Work Cover 10 years before he targeted me I would have been spared. As it was I didn’t get to say goodbye to my students and colleagues, had to sneak back to collect my belongings, and lost my main identity as a teacher. Since then I have heard 100’s of teachers appalling stories. It is far too common and like Stoo above “I am totally disgusted by an organisation that I previously trusted, believed in and advocated for”. I used to look at going to work for another education system as defecting. Now I advise to go for it if you end up in a respectful, supportive school!

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